Three records, scribbled at great risk to the authors, have been found in a year
In 1976, a year after the Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into a vast prison without walls, Chheun Phon jotted down some of the principles he had learned: “The people must follow the leader”; “If someone tries to demonstrate against the government, they need to receive serious punishment.”
That year, in another part of the country, Poch Younly described how those same policies claimed lives and broke down dignity: “In the funeral of the Khmer people, no one comes to join... The body is like a dog’s body.”
On October 13, 1976, meanwhile, civil engineer Kry Beng Hong noted the injury that would eventually kill him: “Accident with three broken ribs because of the collapse of the oxcart.”
By the time the regime crumbled, Younly was dead – along with some two million others. Phon lived into old age, dying at 96. Hong survived but succumbed years later to liver damage from the oxcart accident.
All three men are now gone, but their words, scribbled under desperate circumstances and at great personal risk, survive in the yellowing pages of spiral-bound notebooks and small scraps of paper.
Over the past two decades, the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) has collected more than 450 diaries cataloguing the events of the three years and eight months that the Khmer Rouge regime ruled. The vast majority were penned by cadres and related mostly to military tactics.
But a few were kept by victims who faced execution if discovered. Youk Chhang, the executive director of DC-Cam, which has collected millions of documents pertaining to the regime and contributed to this month’s sentencing of two senior leaders, has found six.
The first two were discovered among Khmer Rouge possessions – their authors likely killed – and a third was found in the early 2000s. The three by Younly, Phon and Hong were handed to the centre in the past year, the latter two in the past month.
“I think it is influenced by the verdict, people are finding closure,” he said. “Every time that the story of the Khmer Rouge comes up, we get something.”
It is unknown whether Phon – who took on the name Deng Vattana during the regime – was a cadre or victim, he added.
While it was unusual for a victim’s diary to address Khmer Rouge policy, many victims took an interest according to Chhang. “When victims are isolated, ideology can save their lives,” he added.
Before the regime, Phon was a veterinarian and afterwards tended to crops near his home in Battambang.
His daughter Nou Lekha stumbled across her father’s notes while cleaning out his bookcase after his death.
“After the Khmer Rouge regime, he told us children about what happened at that time, and the suffering – he lost a child – but he never told us about what was written in the diary,” said Lekha.
“I want to share this and preserve it for the next generation to know what happened during that time.”
Other diaries and documents were used as part of the evidence in the trial of senior Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, who were sentenced to life imprisonment on August 7 but face further charges.
“I think [Phon’s] diary has left us an important piece of the puzzle of how the Khmer Rouge ruled the country,” said Chhang, adding that he did not want to speculate on whether it could be used in court.
“This confirms that the Khmer Rouge was a state... It confirms that the Khmer Rouge did have a constitution.”
A copy of the diary by civil engineer Hong, who went on to design the stupa at Choeung Ek, one of the most famous memorials to Khmer Rouge victims, was given to Chhang earlier this month.
“I think he writes like an architect – straight to the point,” said Chhang. “The way he took notes, [it sounds like] he wanted to take revenge.”
His son, Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, still keeps the original – a single dog-eared sheet of paper which was wrapped in bamboo or hidden in a clay pot throughout the regime – in his Phnom Penh office.
Born in Kampong Cham, Hong later moved to the capital with his wife and young children and was forced out during the evacuation of Phnom Penh.
The diary begins the day after the order was issued: April 18, 1975. “We left the house at seven in the morning. We stayed one night at Monivong Bridge,” he wrote. To keep the children from getting lost among the surging crowds, Hong used nylon strings to tie them together.
The first death occurred a few days later: Hong’s brother, whose nickname was Loh, drowned while helping people move their belongings from a boat. A month later, on May 22, 1975, Hong noted: “My baby, ‘Baby’, died.” A few months old, the child – who had suffered diarrhoea – did not yet have a name.
October 13, 1976: “Accident with three broken ribs after the collapse of the oxcart.”
While forced to work in the fields, Hong suffered an injury that went on to cost him his life – partly because the wound was left untreated.
“I’m sorry to say that he only drank my urine – because a Khmer traditional healer said that he should use a child’s urine, mixed with some kind of leaf, and he went into a coma for seven days,” explained his son, Beng Hong Socheat Khemro.
The injury had punctured his liver. Years later, in Paris, doctors suggested an operation but Hong declined. He died in 2000.
DECEMBER 31, 1978: “ESCAPED KRATIE LABOUR CAMP.”
In 1978, Hong was sent to labour in Kratie, far from the rest of his family but later escaped, returning on January 4.
“I shiver to think about it now,” said Khemro. “It was a dense, very dense forest – I don’t know whether he was what you would call a superstitious man, but [he said] when he walked, he only saw light, so he followed the light for four days and four nights and he came back.”
The entries continue, sometimes listed vertically, and sometimes crushed in one beside the other as if he was running out of space. Both blue biro and pencil were used. On one side of the page, Hong recorded the names of his relatives and the dates of their executions.
“You can see it’s not in proper handwriting – maybe he was in a hurry and maybe there was only this one page,” said Khemro.
The diary entries are most numerous in the years 1977 and 1978, when the regime was implementing sweeping internal purges across the country. Life grew harder and the threat of execution was greater.
The family had been spared, Khemro believes, because of his father’s usefulness in building dams for the regime and the local popularity of his mother’s side of the family.
But in 1977, the “old people” who had been in charge and who knew the family were executed and replaced by newcomers from Takeo.
“This was a horrible time for us,” said Khemro. “When the Khmer Rouge brings you to be executed, they do it in the early evening, at sunset, and you hear the sound of the oxcart coming.
“Whenever we heard the oxcart, we all shivered – we didn’t know whether it would be us or someone else.”
His father prepared balls of food made from the eggs of a poisonous toad and duck meat for the family to swallow if faced with execution. The poison was never taken. Hong lived to become deputy governor of Phnom Penh and entrusted his diary to his son before he died in 2000.
There are likely many more to be found, said DC-Cam’s Chhang, whose sister kept one hidden under her mattress for much of the regime but destroyed it when she feared her home would be searched.
“There are more – both documents and living witnesses out there. Two million have died, but millions have survived, including the perpetrators, to tell their stories,” he said.